I’ve been monitoring the career trajectory of Benjamin Percy, who is a heavy weight and top-notch writer based in my home state of Minnesota. I’ve actually had the pleasure of meeting him in person, and he’s both kind and genuine as a writer and person. It was through his reading at North Hennepin Community College in Fall 2013 that I realized you could be entertaining as a writer at a reading. All my past experiences from previous readings had been relatively poor. The author would act like they didn’t even want to be there. They’d droll on like ancient and forgotten beings, caught in some senile storm of dusty books and broken language. You’d ask questions and the author would treat you like some sort of paramour, riddling in the dark and wasting their precious time with unintended knowledge. At the Percy reading, he actually gave exposition into his writing process. He had multiple personal antidotes, and read only one passage, which he explained in epic detail. He joked about his personal life, and answered questions honestly. It was the best reading I’ve ever attended.
During the reading, he mentioned that he was interested in skewing the line between genre and literary fiction. He was trained as a literary writer, but he loved genre material like fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His book Red Moon was an example of this with werewolves. Recently, he has a new book out entitled The Dead Lands, which was a post-apocalyptic retelling of Lewis and Clark. Sounds like a clever retelling of the story, but I’m not a fan of the post-apocalyptic setting. I tend to like infrastructure and order. Streetlights help me take my dog out at night. I realize the irony in that statement, with my most successful novel The Greenland Diaries being related to that genre. I can take the technical cop-out on that and say that my book is apocalyptic, not post-apocalyptic. My protagonist is reacting to the present, instead of dealing with horrifying mutations of the past. I’m not sure if anyone even cares enough to question my integrity with that statement, but at least I’ve created a paranoid-produced loophole.
Anyways, he has been in the news recently, and I read his transcript of an MPR interview. He echoed his same sentiments about making genre prettier through a literary lens. This got me thinking (which is rare that I actually pause to think of something other than myself) what is the actual separation of genre and literary? Through my own creative writing education (three different colleges of sweaty workshops), I’ve learned some staples of literary technique like creating original images (no sky is blue bullshit), not repeating the same adjectives in the last 500 words, and establishing unique similes and metaphors (the wind had a slight dust to it, like the type you find in the corner of a hoarder’s garage atop a a decade old cast-iron bathtub). These techniques are pretty beneficial to us writers who read tons of material from colleagues and media, but what about the modern audience? Do they have the same palate for technique that we do?
The only way I can relate to this argument about genre vs literary is to embark on a little emotional examination. Writing is all about me trying to be honest. I’m ruled by my emotions. Every piece of my writing has been injected with some sort of emotional damage, triumph, or complication. I can’t write unless I have some emotional attachment to the project. The reason I’m mentioning this conundrum of mine, is that I wonder if emotion plays into genre or literary.
Many writers follow me on WordPress, Facebook, and other channels. So let me ask, do you need emotional attachment to your writing? Or is genre or the literary voice your temptress?
Regardless of genre or language, in my opinion emotion is the cornerstone of good writing. Trying to communicate something that has happened to you through fiction or nonfiction, so the audience can experience the very same emotion is beyond challenging. My worry when we start talking about terms like literary, genre, or anything else is that we’re making excuses for what we want to write, not what we should write. I’ve always wanted to write nonfiction. My life has been packed with emotional experiences. Abusive relationships, beatings, economic failures, family drama, and severe depression to name just a few. People tell me to write nonfiction when I recount a story at a bar or party, but I can’t for one simple reason. I’ve lied my entire life to make other people happy and comfortable. There is no way I can write nonfiction stories now having blatantly been dishonest to avoid confrontation in my life. I cannot commit to the truth with nonfiction, since I’ve only started to live honestly since I met my fiance. Therefore, I communicate through fiction, and these dark times that define me are personified into monsters, like the Unnamed from The Greenland Diaries, or Haukter from Beware the Ills. The violence in my stories is the reflection of the mayhem I feel for having wasted my life not being myself.
So, in conclusion. I want to know if genre, style, and language are the muse, or do emotions still determine the writer’s motivations? I know my answer.